Grace Merriman Thompson Altus

Date of Birth

January 6, 1924

Date of Death

September 13, 2016

Grace Merriman Thompson Altus died on September 13, 2016 after an extended illness. She was born at home on Paterna Road in Santa Barbara on January 6th, 1924, the youngest child of former State Senator James Roderick Thompson and Mary Merriman Thompson. Grace attended the Santa Barbara Girls School until it closed in 1938 and graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1940. She was Valedictorian of the class of 1944 at Santa Barbara State College. After briefly working as a mathematics teacher at a junior high school in Redlands, CA, she went on to earn a PhD in Psychology from U.C. Berkeley in 1949 at the age of 25. At Berkeley, Grace lived at International House — an experience she treasured that led to life-long friendships. She completed post-doctoral training at Columbia University and went on to a career as a school psychologist, first as the head of guidance for Santa Barbara County schools and then for Goleta Union School District.

Grace married William (Bill) David Altus, a psychology professor at UCSB, in 1951. While nepotism laws prevented her from getting a faculty position, she enjoyed mentoring university interns in her school psychology job and co-authoring papers with her husband. Her research interests included the study of factors that influence school achievement and test patterns in children. As a result of this work, she was named a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychological Association, and was listed in Who’s Who of American Women.

Bill and Grace had three daughters: Martha Altus-Buller (Lewis Buller), Elizabeth “Betty” Willis, and Deborah Altus (Jerrold Jost); and three grandchildren: Geoffrey Willis, Gwendolyn Willis and Elijah Jost. Grace was always quick to say that being a mother brought her the deepest happiness in her life. Once her children were grown, she turned to competitive master’s swimming in her spare time, eventually setting a national age-group record for the hour swim and a world age-group record for 1500 meters at age 75, the latter earning her recognition in Sports Illustrated. She was also part of a national record-setting relay team and was a devoted member of the Santa Barbara Swim Club, greatly enjoying the many friendships she made in the pool.

In retirement, she served as a docent for the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, an escort for Planned Parenthood, a volunteer for Transition House, and delivered meals for Meals on Wheels. She was a member of the Santa Barbara Unitarian Society and a life member of the Sierra Club – her fondness for the Sierra developed during backpack trips she took with Bill before her children were born and the many summer vacations she spent hiking in Little Lakes Valley (near Mammoth) with her family.

Sundays often found her doing the Times crossword puzzle and comparing progress with friends, taking brisk beach walks with her sister Jean, tending her garden, and identifying birds that she loved to watch in her yard. She was a voracious reader, always with a book nearby, and delighted in taking her children and grandchildren to Chaucer’s Bookstore for a gift when they came to visit. A lover of words, she enjoyed reciting poems from heart that she learned at the Girls School, enthusiastically participated in creative writing classes in retirement, and did the Jumble in the morning paper up until days before her death. Though growing up in the Depression with a father who was incapacitated by an early heart attack did not leave resources for music lessons, she had a natural ear for music and was known to break into song as she went about her daily tasks. In her typically thoughtful and generous fashion, she nurtured her children’s musical interests and ensured that they had access to the lessons for which she had yearned.

Grace was preceded in death by her husband and her three siblings, James Roderick Thompson, Jr., Elizabeth Thompson Estes, and Jean Thompson Leonard. The family is deeply grateful for the care provided to Grace during her final illness by Delcher Jarman, Lorna Ross, Marisol Lorenzo and Delores (Lola) Falcon. Memorial contributions may be sent to Planned Parenthood, The Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, or a charity of your choice. A memorial service will be held at a later date.


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